Volga | Technology & innovation | Finance, business

At tech project pitches in Nizhny Novgorod, experts point out “high level” of projects; ideas “get closer to reality”

12 Dec '14
The Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN), the region’s largest university, last week hosted the regional final leg of U.M.N.I.K., one of Russia’s major competitions of innovation projects held on a regular basis by the government-run Bortnik Fund. The final pitches took place at the UNN Technology Commercialization Center (TCC) as part of InnoFest, an inter-university festival of youth innovation, of which the Bortnik Fund is one of the Strategic Partners.

This past fall, more than 70 project teams began to compete for recognition and Bortnik Fund grants; only 14 of these reached the December 3-4 final. Their projects covered a broad spectrum of most advanced tech research areas that are considered cutting edge today, including medicine of the future, new devices and hardware systems, modern materials and technologies that bring those about, information and telecommunications technology, and biotechnologies. The finalists came to win the hearts of an authoritative jury with anything from sea collagen based extract to noninvasive melanoma diagnostics, to a robotized system to put out forest fires, even to a ‘smart wardrobe.’

A TCC news editor talked to just a few of the contenders as they were leaving the main pitch room still unaware of the jury’s verdict and in the hope of hearing their names among the winners on December 12 during InnoFest’s closing ceremony:

Ivan Kuznetsov, Institute of Applied Physics, Nizhny Novgorod: “We’re developing laser modules based on a composite active gain medium for high-power disk lasers.”

Varvara Dudenkova, postgraduate, radio physics department, UNN; engineer, biology department, UNN; research fellow, Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy and Institute of Applied Physics: “Our team presented a holographic module that enhances the functionality of conventional systems for microscopy.”

Yuri Titchenko, postgraduate, Institute of Applied Physics: “We focus on developing an acoustic system enabling the calibration of spacecraft.”

Please describe the gist of your project in a few words.

Ivan: “We’re working to create a new type of the main component of a disk laser. The new original technology is expected to boost the powers of today’s lasers.”

Varvara: “Our new module will help upgrade lab microscopes that exist today, and improved functionality is expected to enable researchers to obtain three-dimensional data for each of the objects studied. The technology is not only for fundamental research; it lends a hand to applied sciences as well. For example, in medicine it would increase the accuracy of lab tests while reducing the time spent on those and making the pre-treatment of in vivo specimens redundant.”

Yuri: “Nowadays, after about 20 years of lagging behind, Russia is reinventing itself as a space power and is re-installing its fleet of orbital spacecraft. These systems need ground-stationed calibration devices that will enable ongoing monitoring of what the systems measure and how they do. That’s exactly what we’re offering.”

What sort of experience have you gained as competition participants?

Ivan: “As I was preparing for U.M.N.I.K., I realized that bringing a product to market is not rocket science too hard to grasp, a notion I’d had when I only began to study markets and look for players in our field. In fact, the competitors don’t have super-complex technologies to sell, and I think that once we come up with a real marketable product, commercializing it will be quite feasible. It is this faith in our abilities that I have gained from participation.”

Varvara: “We have got valuable advice regarding patent search and how to apply and protect our rights for intellectual property. In applied science here, this is an aspect that people typically overlook. In addition, experts have given us priceless guidance as to how to proceed and what to focus on when scanning potential markets. We have plans to commercialize the technology, and we know our end customer; so during consultations with the experts we were re-focused on closer interaction with the customer now, before we make a market move, to meet as many of his future needs as possible now, at the R&D stage.”

Yuri: “When I was preparing, I was advised to pay special attention to one simple thing: getting one complete solution ready for market, not all you might have thought of, is not so complicated and quite enough for investors and customers to start considering your solution. From that point, commercialization is already possible and logical. I want to underline that during the U.M.N.I.K. final these days I saw a very high level of presentations, as if I were at a large international conference. I participated in previous finals, too, and can now see huge progress in this.”

Experts: there’s positive dynamics

Yuri’s view was to a considerable extent corroborated by the members of the panel of experts the TCC news editor managed to exchange a few words with in between pitches. Alexander Knyazev, the vice dean of UNN’s department of chemistry and professor at the solid-state chemistry chair, said that “the level of the quality of projects has been fairly high lately, and I think I can see positive dynamics in it.”

Mr. Knyazev also commended this year’s finalists for a “high level” of project presentations; that said, however, he had to admit that the developers’ command of economics leaves much to be desired. “Finances and economics in the projects—perhaps because of a noticeable lack of economic education at the natural science departments—are still poor and very imprecise,” he noted.

Alexey Ermolaev, who runs the business incubator at the Alexeyev State Technical University of Nizhny Novgorod, another major university in the region, agreed with the UNN expert in seeing improvements in the overall quality of projects pitched. “The projects are no worse than I have seen before; on the contrary, some are better prepared. This varies from year to year, but in general, the level is growing, which is good.” On top of that, Mr. Ermolaev underscored a “noticeable synergy” that professors and business experts have revealed in choosing areas of research, developing technologies, and helping the young innovators determine their markets. “Projects are getting closer to realities,” he said.

Nonetheless, unlike his colleague this expert was not particularly happy about the quality of project presentations. “That’s what needs a lot of work,” Mr. Ermolaev said. In his opinion, “it would be a good idea to offer innovators master-classes” as part of events like the InnoFest festival and others prior to giving the finalists the green light to come and pitch their projects, because “we had to literally squeeze details out of the project developers.” For the expert, one’s inability to articulately present his idea poses a threat to his efforts as innovator: “It’s a shame when a project is not explained to the jury as it should be, because such a project is likely to be scrapped and not supported.”

When asked whether there was any chance for some of the projects that competed in the U.M.N.I.K. final in early December to work their way to a broad market, Alexander Knyazev said that, in his reckoning, “one out of ten projects, on average, does stand a chance of evolving into a successful business.” Alexey Ermolaev didn’t rule out what he referred to as “technical possibility” for some of the projects to kick off. “However, to bring a project to fruition, its team must be preserved, and it’s impossible to build a project up to the stage of commercialization on just a single grant. Innovators need systemic approach; they need to be gently escorted to their next level of funding. By the way, this is exactly a goal that the UNN TCC team is pursuing,” Mr. Ermolaev said.
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Locations: Nizhny Novgorod

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